That feeling: India came near peaking in ColomboThe Colombo sun can fry eggs on a pavement, but must it necessarily have the same effect on the human brain? How in God’s name did India end up in the Champions Trophy looking like a team that could only be stopped by,That feeling: India came near peaking in ColomboThe Colombo sun can fry eggs on a pavement, but must it necessarily have the same effect on the human brain? How in God’s name did India end up in the Champions Trophy looking like a team that could only be stopped by a firing squad?Now, two cricket ratings have the Indians as the No. 4 team in the world, two more geekometers say it’s really sixth and eighth and another protests loudly, anointing the Indians as numero uno in the one-day game.No. 1? Us? Them? Those guys who usually moonlight as supermodels for inconsistency are now considered one of the top contenders for the World Cup in February-March?It’s enough to bring on an old-fashioned swoon. More like it’s time to get out of the sun in Kolkata or Coimbatore and think cool, rational thoughts. In Colombo, captain Sourav Ganguly is focused on catching an early morning flight home, never mind South Africa five months away.Coach John Wright has no doubt restrained many high-spirited optimists by saying “steady now, you idiots” in as polite ways as possible. Steady now.A Champions Trophy final in Sri Lanka does not a World Cup in South Africa make. What it does is prove that when this Indian team is switched on, it can square off against the best.But being switched on is rare in itself: for most of its history, Team India has flashed like a malfunctioning tubelight. Big on flair, short on functionality, India was always a half-empty, half-full kind of team; it showed only marginal improvement in two years with 15 wins in 34 matches in 2000 and 12 in 24 in 2001.advertisement”South Africa have good, solid players but not the aura that great teams do.”JOHN BUCHANAN , Australian coach”Australia are tough to beat because they have the bowlers for all conditions.” SHAUN POLLOCK , South African captain”If India want the Cup, they must peak in time and improve their fast bowling.”ARJUNA RANATUNGA, Sri Lankan World Cup winning captainThis year their record-16 wins in 26 games, only two losses in the last 15-is the best for a calendar year by any Indian team ever.It is reasonable now to hope, though maybe not to daydream because others are as close: Australia too have won 16 of 26 matches this year, Sri Lanka 14 of 24 and Pakistan have 17 victories from 28.”With an eye on the World Cup, I would give some credence to the results in the Champions Trophy but not as much as people think,” warns former South African batsman Barry Richards.Of the four that reached the semi-finals in Colombo, the two Asian teams will have to dig deeper in the World Cup to succeed in conditions alien to their cricket. Batsmen and tall totals, Richards cautions, cannot hope to rule on South African wickets.Waist-high bounce and rocket-like carry is the stuff of scary oriental fiction but the Australians who toured in South Africa a few months ago brought a newsflash: the pitches they had played on were by and large “slow, low and tired”.Much like the South African team, one Aussie jokes. Much like the wickets, Shaun Pollock’s men can be expected to perk up in 2003 too. Ian Bishop, former West Indies pace bowler, wants all teams to look within.”It’s about adjustment-while Sri Lanka are yet to make that adjustment, India have already started doing it by playing better outside their environment.” Of India’s 16 one-day wins this year, 10 have come overseas.The reasons for this slow change, particularly in the one-day game, are simple: professional management, planning, and preparation, a healthy dressing-room, a tight core of older players and an influx of rookies who play with freedom and fearlessness because they know no other way.Australian coach John Buchanan says champion sides have an “aura” that comes from proven records, an aura that is not easily eroded. “It’s about more than talent. Players with an aura intimidate opponents when they walk onto the field. The South Africans have good players but not the aura.”These Indians, he told INDIA TODAY, are different even from the lot that stopped the Aussies at the Final Frontier last year, a team no longer easily intimidated. “I can see a life and a passion about the team-a real drive towards winning.”India are one of a clutch of sides- Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and perpetual wildcarders Pakistan- expected to contend for cricket’s grand prize but Ganguly’s team is hamstrung by its wildly erratic bowling.It was what, Pollock told INDIA TODAY, separated the Australians from the rest, “They have world-class fast bowlers and spinners, they can adapt to all conditions better than anyone else. It’s why they are tough to beat.”advertisementIn the turmoil of their board politics, many have forgotten Pakistan; former captain Rameez Raja believes that Waqar Younis’ side is second only to the Aussies in bowling resources but says “individual brilliance sometimes upsets the game plan”.Meaning the captain asks for a yorker and his 400-wicket-old bowler produces a bouncer instead. It’s otherwise called Waqar Younis vs Wasim Akram, prima donna vs prima donna-in short, a mixed blessing Indian fast bowlers are denied. Repair and restoration work will soon be on among Ganguly’s men: against the West Indies in the one-dayers Ajit Agarkar could come in at No. 3 to be both fifth bowler and a handy bat up the order.Is this a cause for fervent prayer? Or a chance to follow another quirky experiment, a la wicketkeeper Dravid suddenly come to surprising life? Whatever else may have changed in Indian cricket, one thing hasn’t-there still is never a dull moment in the business.These are bright days for the national team but do not underestimate the desire or the sweat of others to win in South Africa next year: the Australians already know that seven out of 10 day-night matches held in Durban, where they have a theoretical chance of playing as group winners, have been won by the team batting first; Muthiah Muralitharan thinks nothing of unbuttoning his shirt in a Chinese restaurant to show a set of incredulous diners a bump the size of a table-tennis ball on his left shoulder-it’s his dislocated bone which he cannot get operated on until the World Cup because it would mean two months off from the game which neither his team nor he can afford.Take pride though in what the Indians will do to win: Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra threw up during their bowling spells in sweltering Colombo against England but didn’t stop.Nehra tore the webbing of his hand diving against South Africa but strapped it up and returned to bowl. That night the wound needed five stitches. No other team has played as much international cricket this year as the Indians with 26 one-dayers and 11 Tests and 14 more ODIs and five Tests left until the Cup.Fatigue, particularly among the bowlers, will be a factor and rotating players until the big event a necessity, even if it means suffering defeats. On the back of a few months of magical cricket, Sourav Ganguly’s men have been able to send their countrymen’s heads into the clouds; between now and February, they themselves will have to keep their feet on the ground and their shoulders to the wheel.